Thursday, 28 April 2011

National Poetry Month Celebration (Pt. 5): Staples

Five or six years ago, I left the United States to travel. When I left, I took next to nothing with me, packing my bags as if I were fleeing the premises of a burning building. These are the only books that made the melodramatic cut into my tiny carry-on, three poetry anthologies: A Book of Luminous Things, a collection of "short, clear, readable, and...realistic" poems selected by Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, primarily from Chinese and 20th-century American and European poets; Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, a rich series of mystic poetry translated and selected by Daniel Ladinsky; and The Holy Bible (King James Version)--mainly, of course, the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiasties, and Song of Solomon. They remain the three books that I consider to be absolute staples, as necessary travel (and living) companions as my toothbrush and water bottle.

It is with these recommendations that I conclude this celebration of National Poetry Month, for they capture perfectly the immediate, raw spirit of the art form, showcasing its consistent ability to illuminate both the frailty and strength of the human spirit.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

National Poetry Month Celebration (Pt. 4): Contemporaries

At the root of poetry is oral tradition. David sang his Psalms. Homer recited his epics, just as countless others have bared and shared their souls by telling or singing stories in metre and rhyme. Participating in that tradition are the following modern musicians who, in essence, are poets in their own right. The first is (and forever will be) the artist of all artists to me. He could sing; he could dance; and he proved with Billie Jean that he could write. The second has always had a special place in my heart. My father (himself a published author) would sing along to such profound lyrics as "Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light/ You've known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight" while washing the dishes at night. The third I consider to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century (far ahead of Pound & Eliot, in fact), having painted the sistine chapel of poems in Calling Out Your Name. And the last is one who I am convinced should not be known as a musician at all, but as a writer; for he exemplifies the role of poet in our modern-day society perfectly, carrying the weight of that role with an easy, natural grace.

So, listen to the music. Watch the performances. And remember that poetry is meant to be seen, heard and felt as well as read.





Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Deirdre McGarry in Romania

VP author Deirdre McGarry has forwarded the following report about a recent visit to Romania; without further ado, here it is.

Val Taylor showing the villagers a copy of the book.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Romania, to Odoreu, the village featured in The Day of Small Things, available from Valley Press.  I travelled with my friend Val who inspired the book and who has been committed to the people of Romania since she went there after the revolution and saw the horrors of the orphanages.  She has been going ever since and now is particularly interested in the gypsy community at Odoreu.

Before I got there I stopped for a day’s sightseeing in Budapest, a beautiful city full of sculpture, architecture, stories, history and religious antiquities including the mummified right arm of the king who founded the state in 1000AD.  If you want a relatively cheap short break to a European city I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

It was a short trip to the border and into Romania, down a few gears instantly in terms of wealth. The roads are quiet, the land is flat and in the countryside there are still iconic East European wooden carts and horses and women in black before their time.

Here is a country of hardworking deeply religious people whose generosity takes your breath away and is truly humbling. It is decrepit, crumbling and in the towns quite ugly and ill kept - the trials and suffering from the era of Ceausescu continues to be a blight. I wasn’t so much worried at night about being attacked as falling down a big hole in the pavement!  It is immediately disturbing to see that most skips contain a poor gypsy rummaging for the means to keep him and his family alive. This is a country which is so deeply prejudiced and disdainful to this group of people who are cut off from work, education and the right to an 'identity' which is the doorway to what the rest of society is entitled to. Many do not have these identity papers and the officials are prone to much bribery and corruption, which makes everything a trial.

At last I get to visit the village I’ve seen so many pictures of and heard so many stories about. It is familiar, but it is shocking. I’m stunned to see a row of four churches at the entrance to the encampment where the gypsies live, churches which have turned them away. I want to kick the door, haul out the priest and vent some serious anger. I thank God I am on a church mission and hopefully bearing a more meaningful witness of the Son of Man I have placed my faith in.

It is a dry day, but I still imagine how the mud would turn in a shower of rain.

The houses are built of home-made mud bricks, with plastic and tarpaulin found in rubbish dumps for roofs. For heating and cooking an upturned oil drum with a wood fire burning inside, and a one-pot meal if you have something to eat prepared on the hot top. Some people have electricity wired from a variety of sources so it was a good job I wasn’t a health and safety expert. The toilet was a large hole in the ground, full of excrement - depth unknown - and I seriously feared I might fall in and never be seen again. I persuaded Melinda, the gypsy leader’s wife who had a wicked sense of mischievous humour to hold my hand while I did the business, which caused great hilarity.

Deirdre with Elvirag and family.
I was deeply distressed that two people were dying without medical aid at all, just sat outside these hovels with only their family to be there beside them and life going on around them. Elvirag had been bitten by a dog, developed blood poisoning and was beyond the antibiotics which might have saved her earlier, except she couldn’t afford medical care. Andreas had lung cancer and was in his last days, without pain relief. I was concerned too for a new baby, Miguel, who lived in this squalor and although clearly much loved could not have access to the clean conditions we demand in Britain. No wonder he had little black fingernails when the only water in the whole community was two taps from wells the Bridlington Romanian Project have sunk, and the river.

But this is Europe! This is part of the European community!

What would I really like to say briefly - I would have swapped the best holiday I’ve ever had for this opportunity, I know it has changed my life and I am going back. I touched a reality I rarely get the opportunity to witness and I believe I am called to wake up to what I can do something about to make the world a better place for everybody. I just thank God he showed me.

I have come back to fundraise for a cow to provide milk for the children (what they asked for) and with a number of other ideas which may help to improve community life.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Nation Poetry Month Celebration (Pt.3): Pound & Eliot

I'll never forget the first time I read Ezra Pound's In a Station at The Metro. The words startled me, like the sound of a siren. I nearly jumped out of my seat. The image Pound had created was so clear in my mind that although I was sitting in the quiet corner of a bland classroom, I felt myself to be in a crowded station, at the metro.

It wasn't until that poem that I understood words to be wood and writing to be a craft, something you work at slowly but surely, taking your time, until you're finally skilled enough to be able to whittle syllables into nothing but pure imagery--and manipulate a reader's mind any which way you want.

Because the poem that came after In a Station at The Metro in the anthology I was reading at the time was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound have always gone hand-in-hand in my mind. Although I have a particular affinity to Pound, Eliot has stolen the breath from my lungs nearly as much as his mentor. He attacks language with a primal energy, his libido pumping loudly in the background of each of his poems, while still adhering to a sense of structure and rhythm. I get the same goose bumps reading Eliot as I get listening to Miles Davis.

The following links are two gems I found hiding in The Paris Review, old interviews by Donald Hall of both Eliot and Pound. They delve into the relationship Pound and Eliot shared, the work of both, and provide a small window into the shared mind of two master craftsmen.

The Art of Poetry No. 1, T.S. Eliot

The Art of Poetry No. 5, Ezra Pound

Friday, 15 April 2011

First Look - 'Pulse'

There is organised chaos behind the scenes at the Valley Press office this week; a crucial week for almost all this year's releases, for one reason or another.  On the public stage, VP author Steve Rudd went on BBC Radio Humberside tonight to announce/promote Pulse (and VP in general, good work Steve!) which served as a reminder that I had yet to mention him or the book on the VP blog yet...

Though Steve is a noted musician and poet, he is most widely known for his travel writing - he circles the globe on an almost yearly basis (it seems!), producing hundreds of pithy, punchy reports around the 1500 word mark, which have been published by the likes of Time Out and the Guardian.  As Steve discussed on the radio, travel writing is many people's idea of perfect job...cruising round the globe, jotting up a few notes, expanding your mind...though at some point you do need to come down to earth (in Steve's case, Yorkshire) and sell your wares.

Steve had a three-book deal with a larger publisher, which was scuppered by the recession/arts cuts (which you can read about elsewhere, endlessly) which allowed me to 'snap him up' (so to speak) a couple of months back.  He's actually written five books, one for each of his trips - Pulse is the latest, telling the story of his 2010 trip through India, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia,
inspired by (in his words) 'a midlife crisis' (if indeed you can have one at thirty.)  He left these countries until last because he was worried they wouldn't live up to his expectations, especially India, but (as you'll see when you read it) he wasn't disappointed.

His biggest influence is Jack Kerouac, and something about his free-wheelin', philosophical approach (or people's general obsession with Kerouac!) leads him to be compared to Jack almost every time he is reviewed - one reviewer from US magazine Traveller's Digest suggested Kerouac would be 'grinning in his grave' if he could read Steve's writing.  I get the impression Steve would rather be seen as a Michael Palin figure (post-Python!), offering a reasonable, eloquent and non-judgemental view of the wider world - maybe a combination of both.  Anyway, now you've been introduced, look out for more info on Steve and the book in the months to come; you're going to absolutely love it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


New video post by yours truly - a little lighter than West Street, T.O.A.S.T mourns the occasional sparse provision of food with a little bounce and a grin. Forgive me for my terribly monotonous voice.

What do people think of taking advantage is these technological platforms to broadcast poetry and creative works? It's hardly a new idea - I'm no pioneer - but it's something I haven't really seen take off massively with poetry as of yet, so it'd be great to know what people think on the issue!


Monday, 11 April 2011

National Poetry Month Celebration (Pt.2): E. E. Cummings

If I could only pick one, I'd pick E. E. Cummings.

Ironically enough, I didn't even have to read his poetry to know. Ever since I simply glossed over that esoteric introduction to New Poems (1938), my heart has been entirely his.

I could try to put my love for Edward Estlin and his daring, naked genius into words, but I won't. Instead, I'll let Mr. Cummings do it for me:

Monday, 4 April 2011

National Poetry Month Celebration (Pt. 1): Anne Sexton

It's the designated National Month of Poetry here in the United States. Since the Academy of American Poets first inaugurated it in 1996, publishers, booksellers, libraries, schools and poets around the country have banded together during the month of April to celebrate the poem and its place in American culture. To participate in the celebration, I have put together a list of poets who have influenced and inspired me in immeasurable ways--and will be exploring each throughout the rest of the month. To begin, here is the one and only Anne Sexton:

Anne Sexton is one of those rare modern poets who never requires anything from her reader. Every poem makes complete, abstract sense. She crafts phrases that roll off of the tip of the tongue so naturally, they make one believe they should have always been. Her work is stoically explicit and unashamedly feminine--a true beauty to behold.

The video above contains rare footage of Anne reading one of her poems, bantering with her husband, coddling her daughter--and, in essence, living the poet's life. She's stunning, exactly the way I would imagine her to be: Her voice and mannerisms are as seductive as the words she's reading; she lives with an obvious exaggerated passion, yelling at her dog with utter disdain, smoking with addictive pleasure; and she can describe off-handedly as well as perfectly how and why she loves Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. She demonstrates here and in her work the power of the living, breathing artist--a power that she proved with her life and death can sometimes be so strong, so great, it suffocates the vessel it inhabits.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Last Chance to Own VP0005

VP afficionados will already be aware of an upcoming poetry collection known as The Dead Snail Diaries, catalogue number VP0012, hopefully with us before Spring has passed.  However, you may not be so familiar with the book pictured to the right - VP0005 - and you should get to know it quick, because it will soon become a piece of Valley Press history.

In 2009, after completing the first ten poems of the 'Snail Sequence', I produced a series of hand-made booklets (fifty copies in total), fully illustrated, on thick cream paper, bound in lovely brown card - a labour of love, though I did this mainly so I'd have something snail-related to sell when I tested these poems out on the road.  With the finished collection due, it occurs to me that the window for selling these copies is about to pass - so with this in mind, I have put the remaining copies on eBay, so that readers of the blog (if indeed you are out there) can 'buy it now' for an highly reasonable price of £4.  I'll be sending these out myself, so if you put in a request (i.e. 'please made this out to Josie') in the 'comments' box when you pay, I'll be happy to personalise them.

I can guarantee that no further copies of this edition will ever be printed, and you can't get hold of it anywhere else - it doesn't even have an ISBN number!  So if you've got £4 to spare, this could be an interesting way to relieve yourself of that amount.  Note: if for some reason you don't like eBay, but you still want a copy, drop me a line and we'll sort out something more old-fashioned.

Thanks for your time!  - J.M.